Did we really need a new film version of Pride & Prejudice? After the 90s spate of Jane Austen adaptations -- not to mention the recent P&P updates Bridget Jones Diary and Bride & Prejudice -- moviegoers understandably might proceed with caution. Yet all reservations dissipate as soon as the lights go down and this satisfactory version gets underway. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach have done an exemplary job of making us care all over again about the plight of the Bennet sisters, five young girls whose busybody mom (Brenda Blethyn) sets about finding them suitable husbands against the backdrop of 19th century England. The oldest daughter Jane (Rosamund Pike) immediately lands a suitor, but the independent Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) finds herself embroiled in a grudge match with the brooding Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen). Romanticists who fell hard for Colin Firths Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC miniseries may or may not warm to MacFadyen (whos fine in the role), but theres no quibbling over Knightleys intuitive, note-perfect work as Elizabeth. It would have been nice, though, to have someone less predictable than Judi Dench cast in the role of the haughty Lady Catherine de Bourg. Itd be a shame if cinematographer Roman Osin didnt earn an Oscar nomination for his endlessly inventive camerawork, the sort not usually found in period pieces of this nature.
KISS KISS, BANG BANG
Lethal Weapon scriptwriter Shane Black is back with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, also making his directorial debut. Yet anyone expecting more of the same will be pleasantly surprised: From its opening moments, its clear that Black isnt making a buddy/action movie as much as a send-up of a buddy/action movie. The movie is fiercely intelligent in the manner in which it sends up the usual trite cliches, not only of crime flicks but of Hollywood movies in general. The pictures main attribute is its leading duo, Hollywood bad boys Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. Personal problems and off-screen eccentricities have railroaded their respective careers for long stretches at a time, but here the pair look great and act great. Downeys in top shape as Harry Lockhart, a none-too-bright thief who stumbles into an audition for a detective flick while running from NYPD cops. Impressed by what they perceive as method acting (really, Harry is just blubbering over the death of his partner in crime), the producer ships him out to LA, where hes expected to prepare for his screen test by hanging out with a macho private eye named Perry van Shrike (Kilmer). Well, not completely macho -- theres a reason that the PIs nickname is Gay Perry.
It usually isn't hard to tell a war movie from an anti-war movie. If the combat experience is presented as a rousing boys' adventure in which the good guys stomp on the bad guys and clear-cut goals are met, then it's a war movie (e.g. practically every WWII film ever made). But if the combat experience is presented as a murky affair in which objectives are unclear, the good guys die (or, worse, deteriorate mentally) and nothing tangible gets accomplished, then it's an anti-war movie (e.g. practically every Vietnam War film ever made, with the obvious exception of John Wayne's The Green Berets). Jarhead doesn't quite fall under either classification. If anything, it's the pioneer in a new genre: the anti-war-movie movie. With steadfast determination, it refuses to take sides, name names, push agendas or do anything that might potentially inspire the wrath of moviegoers, Oscar voters, Op-Ed editors, war hawks or pacifists. In adapting Anthony Swofford's book, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and scripter William Broyles Jr. (Apollo 13) apparently felt that they had to be solely sympathetic to the travails of the foot soldiers -- in this case, the Marine "jarheads" who were dispatched to Iraq back in the early 90s to take part in the Gulf War. In much the same fashion as Stanley Kubrick's brilliant Full Metal Jacket, Jarhead opens stateside, as we see the basic training undergone by "Swoff" (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he attempts to mold himself into a military man of steel. There's the verbally abusive D.I., the hazing by the other grunts, the rigorous workouts, etc. From here, it's off to the Middle East, where these young men -- pumped up by visions of macho exploits, bonding with their phallic rifles and whipped into a feeding frenzy by a screening of Apocalypse Now's Wagnerian interlude (a scene whose absurdist elements completely elude the whooping Marines) -- are ready to kill countless Iraqis for God and country.
Only things don't quite work out that way. Jarhead does its best to remain apolitical through and through: One soldier (Lucas Black) who correctly states that the only reason we're over there is to protect the oil is quickly silenced by another character who declares, "Fuck politics!" Yet the very nature of the piece insures that correlations can be made to the current debacle in the Middle East. Sam Mendes may have been reluctant to offend the war hawks, but history can't afford a similar luxury: It's too busy repeating itself to balk.
GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN P1/2
Rapper 50 Cent (or Curtis 50 Cent Jackson, as hes billed here) may have set the music world on fire, but as a movie star, hes as relevant as a dead mike.
An awful thriller featuring a post-Friends (and post-Brad) Jennifer Aniston attempting to jumpstart a movie career. Mining that fertile Fatal Attraction terrain, this finds unhappily married business executives Charles Schine (Clive Owen) and Lucinda Harris (Aniston) meeting as strangers on a train, engaging in flirtatious banter before deciding to get down and dirty in a seedy hotel room. But theyre suddenly disturbed by Laroche (Vincent Cassel), a French thug who rapes Lucinda (shades of Cassels Irreversible), beats Charles and murders the English language. For all her prominence in the promotional blitz, Aniston only merits a supporting role in the picture. The majority of the screen time is handled by Owen, which is a small blessing since hes the best thing about the movie.
Childrens author Chris Van Allsburg scored big with his picture book Jumanji, so its no surprise that he dipped into the same well for Zathura, which can easily be summed up as Jumanji in space. Yet moviegoers who caught the screen version of Jumanji at some point over the past decade might still be interested in checking out the new cinematic take on Zathura, which differs in that it focuses on a strained sibling rivalry, showcases better visual effects, and replaces Jumanjis Robin Williams with a manic, defective robot (on second thought, that last point might not qualify as a difference).
CHICKEN LITTLE PP
With its hand-drawn animation division boarded up and its profitable partnership with Pixar having crashed and burned, Walt Disney Pictures has taken the next step by creating its own fully computer-animated movie. Yet if Chicken Little represents the future of Disney animation, then the sky is indeed falling: This is as far removed from such old-school classics as Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast as roast duck is from chicken gizzards. To be fair, this toon flick -- a frantic yarn about a diminutive bird (voiced by Zach Braff) whose warnings about an impending alien invasion are ignored by the other anthropomorphic animals in the town of Oakey Oaks -- has its moments, most of them arriving courtesy of a supporting character known as Fish Out of Water. But the central thrust of Chicken Little -- a standard follow your dream slog that on a dime turns into War of the Worlds -- is the same sort of hollow experience that has all but drained the traditional toon tale of its potency over the past decade-plus.
THE LEGEND OF ZORRO
Its been seven years since the delightful swashbuckling adventure The Mask of Zorro hit theaters, and the lengthy interim suggests this follow-up was an afterthought on the part of Columbia Pictures. Maybe so, but at least nobody can accuse this of being hastily put together to cash in on the success of the first film. This finds Don Alejandro de la Vega (returning star Antonio Banderas) having trouble shedding his day job as Zorro in order to spend more time with his lovely wife Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and rambunctious son Joaquin (Adrian Alonso). But once Alejandro learns of a plan that threatens not only California but the rest of the nation, he steps back into his role as the other Man In Black. Banderas and Zeta-Jones remain a sexy and spirited screen couple.
THE WEATHER MAN PPP
Nicolas Cage, who throughout the past decade has been more grating than ingratiating, here delivers one of his better performances in a movie that mines much of the same emotional terrain as About Schmidt. A serio-comic piece written by Steven Conrad, this finds Cage cast as David Spritz, a Chicago TV weatherman whose lack of legitimate credentials hasnt slowed down his career ascension. An affecting tale about a man who has trouble seeing the big picture because all of lifes little asides keep obstructing his view. The films sensibilities are just off-center enough to make it interesting, yet theres always a tug of universal recognition in Davids travails.
Stating that Doom is probably the best of the numerous flicks based on a video game ranks as the feeblest praise imaginable, akin to noting that benign genital herpes is the best sexually transmitted disease to acquire, or that strawberry is the best tasting Schnapps flavor.
NORTH COUNTRY PP1/2
North Country is loosely based on a true story, and itd be interesting if transcripts from the actual trials surrounding this tale were made available at the films screenings. That way, we could see for ourselves if the courtroom shenanigans were really as difficult to swallow as the ones that conclude this film. Inspired by this nations first successful sexual harassment lawsuit, the movie stars Charlize Theron as a single mom who returns to her Minnesota hometown and lands a job in the local mines. One of only a handful of women who work there, she has to contend with the incessant torment perpetrated by the yahoos who work alongside her, good ol boys who dont believe that girls have any business laboring in the mines. Theron again demonstrates (as if there was any doubt after Monster) that shes a master thespian residing within a models body.
Taking a well-worn formula and adding some flavor through the rich characterizations of its leading players, Dreamer centers on the circumstances that transpire when horse trainer Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) and his young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) elect to nurse an injured race horse named Sonador (Spanish for Dreamer) back to health.
Orlando Bloom, nothing special but getting the job done, stars as Drew Baylor, a failed shoe designer who temporarily shelves his own demons in order to attend the funeral of his dad back in the title Kentucky town. Along the way, he meets a chatty flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) who stirs him out of his stupor.
TWO FOR THE MONEY P1/2
Ever since winning that Oscar for Scent of a Woman (still the worst con job ever to snag a Best Actor statue), Al Pacino has elected to Hoo-ah! his way through almost every subsequent role. Pacinos back in full manic mode in Two for the Money, a malnourished morality tale not dissimilar in structure to the other Pacino vehicles in which he serves as a shady mentor to a hot young actor.
IN HER SHOES PPP
Women will grab their tissues while males will roll their eyes. But In Her Shoes isnt designed for any of these people; instead, it will attract viewers who have little use for societal labels and who anticipate a well-crafted blend of comedy and pathos. Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette are Maggie and Rose, two sisters who have nothing in common except their shoe size. In this case, the ties that bind have been shredded down to a mere string, one which snaps when Maggie betrays Rose in an act of thoughtlessness. Banished, Maggie heads to Florida to meet Ella Hirsch (Shirley MacLaine), the grandmother she only recently met.
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE PPP1/2
In the same manner that David Lynch deconstructed the myth of the squeaky-clean small Southern town in Blue Velvet, so does director David Cronenberg take a hatchet to the façade of Midwestern homeliness. After two men check out of their motel in the grisliest way imaginable, we jump to the home of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a café owner with a devoted wife named Edie (Maria Bello) and two children. Toms peaceful existence disappears the night that a pair of murderous strangers bust into his diner. Tom kills the intruders, which leads to his national status as a hero. This widespread exposure brings more strangers to town -- gruff mobster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) and his flunkies. Viggo Mortensen, formerly a wretched actor who has matured these last few years, was a wise choice -- its impossible to read anything on his face, thus making it hard to gauge whether or not hes telling the truth.
WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT PPP1/2
Not only the best animated flick of the year but also one of the most enjoyable outings in any genre. In this yarn, Wallace and his silent sidekick have taken it upon themselves to rid their burgs rabbits by forming a pest control outfit called Anti-Pesto.